Drama and spirituality – Desmond O’Neill on Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle

As Napoleon III quipped, it is neither small, solemn nor particularly religious

Many turbulent events occurred in 1864: battles raged in the American Civil War, the Polish uprising was crushed, and Denmark was forced to cede Schleswig-Holstein to the Prussians after a brief but bloody war. Two happier anniversaries will be celebrated in a Dublin landmark on Parnell Square this Sunday (May 19th) by Our Lady’s Choral Society under the direction of Proinnsías Ó Duinn. The year witnessed the completion of the Abbey Presbyterian Church, known to most Dubliners as Findlater’s Church in recognition of its benefactor, and the first performance in Paris of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle (Little solemn Mass).

Gallic influences unite the two – Findlater’s Church is recognised as a prime example of French Gothic Revival architecture, and Rossini’s masterwork was composed during his long residence in Paris.

The operas of Rossini’s earlier years have long held a special place among Irish music lovers. At the first organised Italian opera season in Dublin in 1829, pride of place was accorded to five operas by Rossini, establishing a lasting presence to this day. James Joyce, an avid opera-goer, was enamoured of Rossini with many colourful anecdotes arising from his fondness for performances in William Tell by the Irish tenor John Sullivan. Interestingly, among the many operatic references in Ulysses, the key reference to Rossini is not to an opera but to his highly operatic religious work, the Stabat Mater.

Although Rossini wrote some more traditional religious music during earlier life, his music in later life is notable for two key reasons. As was the case with Sibelius, he ceased composing the music output with which he was most celebrated at a relatively early age. For Rossini this was for operas at the age of 37, for Sibelius for symphonic music at age 60: both lived for more than three decades after this.

The other notable feature of Rossini’s return to composition at the age of 67 was his sense of humour and the absurd coming to the fore. This is allied to a complete mastery of the many musical forms used, largely small scale and designed for private performance at the his celebrated Saturday salons, frequented by a range of prominent composers and performers. The predominance of solo piano pieces reflects his reputation as a skilled pianist and the range and variety of the pieces is astounding.

His title for the collection, Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of My Old Age), sums up the delightfully ironic approach of these creations. The humour is carried further in the titles of individual pieces: My Hygienic Morning Prelude; Oh, Those Petits Pois; Little Waltz, Castor Oil. His portrayal of asthma in Étude Asthmatique gives an intriguing aural insight into how asthma was experienced in the 19th century.

Unjustly neglected in their original format, these pieces are perhaps better known through their orchestration as ballet suites, the Boutique Fantasque and Rossiniana by Respighi, and the Matinées musicales and Soirées musicales by Benjamin Britten.

The apotheosis of his late creativity was the extraordinary Petite messe solennelle. As Napoleon III quipped, it is neither small, solemn nor particularly religious.

Overturning convention at every aspect, a notable feature at the outset is the utterly novel and effective accompaniment of two pianos and a harmonium. Rossini was later to arrange an orchestral version: his preference was for the original accompaniment, but he considered that his orchestration would deter other composers from arranging his Mass!

His dedication of the work embodies the same sentiments: “Dear God, here it is finished, this poor little Mass. Is it sacred music I have written, or damned music? I was born for opera buffa, as you know well. A little technique, a little heart, that’s all. Be blessed then, and grant me Paradise.”

The work combines Rossini’s instinct for theatre with a deeply felt spirituality: drama, pathos, colour and intensity are intertwined in an entrancing musical experience.

One deviation in modern performance is in the combination of voices used.

Rossini specified “Twelve singers of three sexes – men, women and castrati – will be sufficient for its execution: that is, eight for the chorus, four for the solos, a total of twelve cherubim.”

The angelic voices will be distributed in the more conventional quartet of soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

However, it is hoped they will follow his advice: “Among your disciples are some who strike false notes! Lord, rest assured . . . that mine will sing properly and con amore your praises and this little composition which is, alas, the final sin of my old age”.

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